The Working Waterfront

Estuary Beat: Thinking about upgrading river, stream standards

Catherine Schmitt
Posted 2018-05-22
Last Modified 2018-05-22

Frenchman Bay Partners talk rockweed, red tide, clam flat cleanup

Frenchman Bay Partners held its annual meeting on May 5 in Winter Harbor and covered several topics related to the intertidal zone.

Since 2016, Hannah Webber of the Schoodic Institute has led a working group to evaluate the status and trends of rockweed in the bay. Webber presented early results from a series of monitoring sites. Growth rate of rockweed is similar throughout the bay, but density and height varies. A rough estimate of the average age of rockweed in the bay is seven years.

Work is continuing to identify waterfront landowners who may be willing to allow researchers to conduct experiments about the impact of harvesting in rockweed beds.

Anna Farrell presented an update from the Department of Marine Resources on harmful algal blooms. Red tides are relatively common around Frenchman Bay, but in the last two years a new species has been detected. This phytoplankton, pseudo-nitzschia, produces a neurological toxin called domoic acid. Shellfish that consume this phytoplankton species are not affected, but can harm humans and other mammals that eat the shellfish where the toxin may have accumulated. DMR closely monitors for toxins in shellfish and enforces precautionary closures; last year it had to recall some shellfish and no illness was reported.

Shellfish harvesters have been working for years with Bridie McGreavy of the University of Maine to better manage clam flats and prevent pollution. With support from the Maine Community Foundation, the Department of Environmental Protection, and others, they have expanded water quality monitoring resulting in the re-opening of 130 acres of flats, progress towards their goal of 610 acres. They will continue to identify sources of pollution, with a focus on the Jordan River.


Proposals seek to upgrade water quality classification

The Department of Environmental Protection has proposed upgrading water quality standards in several major rivers and coastal streams. Maine water quality law has four classes for freshwater rivers and streams (AA, A, B and C, with AA being the highest), three classes for marine and estuarine waters (SA, SB and SC), and one class for lakes and ponds (GPA). The classes represent the designated uses (fishable, swimmable, drinkable, etc.) and related characteristics, and the criteria necessary to protect those uses, as directed by the federal Clean Water Act.

According to state law, if a water body meets or exceeds the criteria of a higher classification, that higher standard must be maintained. Many of the proposals seek to establish higher classifications that are already being met or exceeded. The last reclassification was ten years ago.

Penobscot River

The Penobscot Indian Nation monitors water quality throughout the Penobscot watershed. Monitoring data indicate that the West Branch downstream of Quakish and Ferguson lakes to the main stem, and the main river down to the Mattawamkeag, including existing impoundments, meet Class B standards and should be upgraded from Class C.

“The closure of the two upstream paper mills in the West Branch has resulted in improvements to water quality,” wrote Dan Kusnierz, water resources program manager, in the Penobscot Nation’s proposal. DEP also wants to upgrade Millinocket Stream, and expects that any new discharges associated with redevelopment of the mill site(s) would support Class B standards.

Meanwhile, where dams have been removed and fish are returning, classification upgrades will ensure continued high water quality. The Penobscot Nation proposed extending the “free-flowing habitat” designation, which carries special protections, on the lower Penobscot to Milford Dam, since dam removals have restored that section of the river. The Nature Conservancy also proposed the extension of the special protection for the lower Penobscot and upgrading of the mainstem. They also proposed upgrading the restored Blackman Stream to Class A, but the DEP does not have enough data to determine that criteria are being met.

The DEP also wants to correct an “error” in classification of 1.6 miles of the East Branch, the most downstream segment before it meets the West Branch at Medway. According to DEP, this reach was incorrectly upgraded to Class AA, as it is actually part of the impoundment created by the Mattaceunk Dam and thus did not then and does not now meet Class AA’s “free-flowing” requirements.

Androscoggin River

Friends of Merrymeeting Bay proposed upgrading the lower Androscoggin from Lisbon Falls to the bay, but DEP monitoring data indicate that Class B standards are not always attained.

Tunk Stream

Department of Environmental Protection staff proposed that Tunk Stream (upstream of Route 1) be upgraded to Class A. The stream and lake support both sea-run and land-locked salmon, and a significant portion of the watershed is protected forest.

Additional changes are proposed, and two public information meetings are scheduled on May 22 and 24. Comments are due by June 5.


Smelt spawning season

Sea-run rainbow smelt spawn in May and June, running up coastal streams to spawn in fast, fresh water. They lay eggs, which can be seen as pale specks or dots, on rocks and shorelines. Fishing for smelt is permitted east of Owls Head (with special regulations for Penobscot Bay; check the DMR website for rules). To the south and west the population has declined to a point where fishing has been prohibited (except for ice fishing).

According to Nate Gray of the Department of Marine Resources, who reported on the winter rainbow smelt survey for the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, “It seems as though the Kennebec smelt population is declining. This follows a disturbing trend from Chesapeake Bay northward in recent times.” Gray thinks loss of spawning habitat and pollution are largely to blame. Measures put in place to protect the population, inclusing closure of much of the fishery, has not yet had a discernable impact.

Volunteers are needed from May through early June to count the fish that successfully make it into Nequasset Lake to spawn. Counting is a fun activity for both children and adults, and no prior experience in necessary. Sign up for the count at

Catherine Schmitt is communications director for Maine Sea Grant.